The Written Face

Directed by Daniel Schmid

89 minutes / Color
English subtitles
Release: 1999
Copyright: 1995

In Japanese theater women's roles are traditionally played by men. The man playing the woman's role, the Onnagata, does not imitate the woman, as in the West, but tries to capture her significance. He need not stick close to his model, but draws far more from his own identity - a shift of value takes place, which is nonetheless not a step beyond.

THE WRITTEN FACE is an attempt to offer an insight into the Japanese Kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando, one of the last defenders of this ancient and disappearing performing tradition. The film consists of four continuous acts:

A prelude, the dance of the drunken snake "Orochi", from Japan's oldest myth, is followed by a documentary section, "Tamasaburo Bando and his idols." It includes encounters with geisha and dancer Han Takehara, film actress Haruko Sugimura and Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno.

Haruko Sugimura worked with Ozu and Naruse during the flowering of Japanese cinema. The Geisha Han Takehara was for many years the greatest dancer in Japan, although she was only known to a small circle of clients and only in later years appeared in public, already a legend.

The next act, "Twilight Geisha," is a light-hearted variation on the geisha theme. In the fourth and final section, Tamasaburo dances the Kabuki drama "Sagimusume," a story of reincarnation and of a girl's transformation on a snowy winter's night.

THE WRITTEN FACE reverberates in an echo-chamber of signs, where the alteration of a face also implies a shift of value. It seeks to show these shifts of value and cracks in the mask, in the written face, to reveal some significant images of the kabuki world, and to allow us to experience this world, however partially.

"A beautiful and profound documentary."—Ronald Bergan, The Guardian

"A visual delight! A poetic meditation on femininity as seen through the world of Japanese performing arts…. THE WRITTEN FACE is sure to provoke discussion on many levels."—Education About Asia

"A work of constant beauty."—26 Hours of Lausanne

"The best souvenir of the Locarno Festival was THE WRITTEN FACE."—Libération

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Daniel Schmid
Featuring Tamasaburo Bando

Select Accolades

  • Official Selection, 2001 Association for Asian Studies Film Festival


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